Economic Times, Mumbai, Oct 15 2009, by Vithal C Nadkarni

At the launch of Gurcharan Das’s latest book based on readings of the Mahabharata in Mumbai, that Seer of Software, Jaithirth `Jerry’ Rao, alluded to a widely held belief about the epic in India. Unlike the Ramayana, which is believed to bring happy augury to any home, the Mahabharata is frowned upon as a book that invariably brings strife and distress.

It is also believed that a reading of Valmiki’s Sundarakanda from Rama’s epic, whether in whole or part, will enable readers to accomplish whatever objective they have in mind for themselves or their families. Why isn’t Vyasa as fortunate? (Although about his magnum opus it has also been said that “what is found here is found elsewhere / what is not here is nowhere”.)

That may be because the Mahabharata is the story of a futile and terrible war of annihilation between the children of two brothers of a single clan, writes Das in his magnificent new book. As Wendy Doniger, Chicago University’s Mircea Eliade Professor of History of Religions writes, “(The Difficulty of Being Good: on the Subtle Art of Dharma) seamlessly blends the personal and the scholarly, the academic and the meditative, to brilliantly explain the pragmatism of a classic.”

On one side of the Great War are arrayed the “children of a blind pretender against the sons of a man too frail to risk the act of coition”. The winner of the war is a reluctant hero, too pacific for the prevailing blood-thirsty code of honour.

The other heroic characters of the epic are flawed too. Everybody stumbles. But their incoherent experiences also throw light on familiar, universal emotions even in our post-modernist times.

Like the great epic, Das’s book addresses the central problem of how to live in a way that harmonises with dictates of duty and dignity, which nevertheless seem to lie beyond the protagonists’ imperfect grasp. That is where the book scores over straight-forward translations or adaptations; because it shows by vivid modern examples---such as `lessons’ of the ongoing fracas between the Ambani brothers---how the epic’s world of moral haziness and uncertainty is closer to our experience as ordinary human beings.

In the final analysis, what redeems the epic and also accounts for its timeless appeal is the manner in which it “is able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat,” Das writes. Through his `un-heroic’ example, King Yudhisthira `who weeps with all creatures’ validates the central refrain of the epic that `Dharma leads to victory’, that it is possible for good to triumph “even in a time of cosmic destructiveness”.

That may explain why countless generations of readers have cherished the book ignoring dire warnings, because its theme is not war but peace.

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